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13 December 2005

The Nutcracker

By Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, based on the play by E. T. A. Hoffman as adapted by Alexandre Dumas

Performers: Christina Fagundes (Sugar Plum Fairy), Ben Juys (Cavalier), Joy Atkins (Snow Queen & Arabian Principal), Michael J. Lively (Snow King & Arabian Principal), Libby Olien (Dewdrop); Andrew Sewell conducting the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra

December 11, 2005

Want to know the plot? Or what the critics think?

I have a long history with The Nutcracker, but never as a performer. Perhaps because it was one of the very special Christmas traditions I share with my mother - listening to the music while she baked goodies, seeing the ballet with her when I was twelve, and watching the Baryshnikov/ Kirkland version year after year - but this is a part of Christmas that cannot be underestimated for me. So when I found a $5-off coupon for the Madison performance, I rounded up a few MBA spouses (Jing from China, Hyoseon from South Korea, and Anita from South Carolina), left the kids with Keven, and went to the theater.

What is fascinating about The Nutcracker is that every city puts on a production, filled with the ranks of local school- age talent. Some productions are staffed with profes- sionals, but many such as this one include a majority of amateurs (who have to pay a $300 performance fee - resume building!) with only a few guest soloists for the serious roles. This produced a strange result. For the majority of the show, I was laughing at little kids dressed as mice (no older than Juliette, I am sure) or hoping that the high school and college-aged dancers wouldn't mess up too badly (there were two falls during this performance). Only when one of the five guest dancers appeared on stage did I feel like I was actually watching a ballet - highly developed skills, no foibles, light feet, everything beautiful and effortless.

This served as a reminder about how difficult ballet is. Some of the girls with substantial roles have probably been dancing for 15 years, since before they were old enough to spell their own names. Yet their feet still sounded like little elephants on the stage. Then, in pirouettes Christina Fagundes, the Sugar Plum Fairy, a 45-year old dancer and recent mother who became a soloist under Baryshnikov with the American Ballet Theater in 1989 - and everything changes. There are NO foot sounds. Every movement is art. And highlighted most effectively is the difficulty involved in a performance such as hers and the amount of work, skill and talent that makes a great dancer. In a company full of professionals, some of that grit and hard work is mistaken only for artistry, but here the stages of a dancer - from toddler to veteran - are all displayed.

The sets and costumes were lovely, although I was sitting high enough in the nose-bleed seats to see the dancers' place markers drawn in chalk on the stage. The party scene was boisterous but generally dull, and I didn't feel that the real ballet began until the Snow Queen dance in "Waltz of the Snowflakes." This performance treated "Coffee (Arabian Dance)" as it should be treated - as a sultry, obsessive, menacing spectacle, and Atkins and Lively did a fantastic, suddenly R-rated interpretation of one of my favorite pieces of orchestral music. He wore a loincloth... and her. Simply amazing. Libby Olien was wonderful as the Dewdrop (the soloist in "Waltz of the Flowers"), especially considering that she is still in college and not yet a professional. She was bold, beautiful and completely flawless.

(Interesting that the Capital Times critic linked to above agreed with me about Olien, writing "from the athletic finesse she brings to her performance to something as subtle as the tilt of her head to accent a step, Olien possesses a blend of instinct and discipline that makes her performance a joy to watch," but disagreed about the Arabian sequence: "The pair does less well as the human sculpture that has become the standard for 'Arabian Dance,' a sequence that's blessedly short-lived." To each his own, although this guy is wrong.)

I was bothered by the decision to A) eliminate the 45- second "Tarantella," the only piece in the opera that is performed by a male soloist, the absence of which left Juys with nothing to do but prop up Fagundes, and B) place the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" at the beginning of Act III when it is traditionally saved for the completion of the act, just before the "Coda." I was caught off-guard when it arrived so early! Otherwise, this performance provided a dozen laughs, well-interpreted dances in the third act, and a fun, memorable addition to my holiday season this year.

Blogger Diva Kitty's Mom said...

Baryshnikov... swoon

Blogger carrie_lofty said...

Those tights are worse than a man being naked. Everything is just so well...defined! :)

Blogger Mircalla said...

I didn't know this dreamy fairy tale! :o ) Nice story. Well, I know E.T.A. Hoffman because I read him at university, but not this children story.

"This served as a reminder about how difficult ballet is. Some of the girls with substantial roles have probably been dancing for 15 years, since before they were old enough to spell their own names. Yet their feet still sounded like little elephants on the stage."

I hate ballet because it is so un-democratic as the contrasting principles of contemporary dance show!

Blogger keithneun said...


Rachel and I just saw the Cinti Ballet perform it today, at Music Hall no less, followed by lunch at the Bonbonerie (who's a kick ass dad? yeah, that's right). Anyway, sometime during Sugar Plum fairy Rachel asks me "what's that man wearing on his waist?" Well, the only thing noticeable within a zip code of the Prince's waist was his subsantial package. Fortunately a "nothing sweeite" sufficed. Damn.

Blogger carrie_lofty said...

Oh, but I laugh at you, daddy man! (You have permission to laugh back in a year!)


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